On October 7th, 2019, the justices returned to the bench for what has been called “the most significant Supreme Court term in a decade.” The docket of 59 cases is set to cover high-profile matters including abortion, gun rights, LGBT+ rights, presidential power, and more. While Chief Justice John Roberts has long sought to maintain an image of the Court as an apolitical institution, all eyes will be on the conservative-leaning Court as it rules on divisive issues ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
A brief overview of the issues on the docket this term:
In June Medical Services v. Gee, the Court will assess the constitutionality of a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. In 2016, the Court struck down an essentially identical Texas law in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt for placing undue burdens on a woman’s access to abortion. Thus, the grant of certiorari in this case raises a legitimate concern as to the Court’s faithfulness to its own precedent—potentially as far back as Roe v. Wade.
In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York, the Court will decide whether restrictions on transporting a gun outside of the home violate the Second Amendment, the Commerce Clause, or the right to travel. It has been over a decade since the Court held in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects the right to gun ownership within one’s home for self-defense. The States have had wide discretion to implement gun control regulations outside of the home as necessary for public safety. Interestingly, New York City revised the ordinance being challenged in this case shortly after the Court granted certiorari (arguably making the suit moot), but the Court still scheduled it for oral argument in December.
Workplace Discrimination against LGBT+ Individuals
The Court heard oral argument to decide whether the prohibition on discrimination “because of sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. The employees in the three cases, two gay men and a trans woman, were fired after the employers learned of the employees’ LGBT+ status. While this type of discrimination may not be what Congress intended to cover with Title VII, the employees are urging the Court to focus on the text – a task that should be right on brand for the conservative justices, in theory. The method of statutory construction that the Court applies here will affect the lives of some 11 million Americans.
In three consolidated cases, the Court will decide whether it can review the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and whether ending DACA is lawful. There are approximately 690,000 DACA recipients in the U.S.
In Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Court will determine the constitutionality of the CFPB, the federal agency tasked with regulating banks and credit institutions after the 2007-08 financial crisis. The single director of the CFPB cannot be fired absent inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance. The Court may determine just how much executive authority the President can have over administrative agencies.
As for the rest of the docket, some of the sizeable categories of cases we will be seeing this term include twenty criminal-related cases (including three death penalty appeals), six intellectual property cases, three Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) cases, and three environmental law cases. While it is difficult to predict the outcomes of these cases, one thing is certain: the Roberts Court will shake public opinion and discourse in the upcoming election. Whether satisfied or appalled by the Court’s actions, voters will be reminded just what is at stake for the composition of the federal judiciary when they cast their ballots.